May 16, 2019 – By Yessenia Funes in Earther
PIKETON, OHIO—David and Pam Mills have grown tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and okra on their secluded Appalachian property for about 18 years now. This will be the first year the retired couple doesn’t. They just can’t trust their soil anymore. Not with what’s being built barely a five-minute walk away.
Past the shed and through the gray, bare trees that grow in the backyard, bulldozers and dump trucks are busy scooping tan-colored dirt atop an overlooking hill on a brisk January afternoon. They’re constructing a 100-acre landfill for radioactive waste. The machines are there most days until the sun goes down; David, 60, hasn’t been able to escape their roaring for two years. Wearing a black-and-gray baseball cap, he drives his rusty orange tractor down the hill, against the crunch of dead leaves, to take a closer look. On a short metal fence marking where the Mills property ends, a sign reads, “U.S. PROPERTY, NO TRESPASSING,” in big, bold letters with red, white, and blue borders.
The Department of Energy (DOE) owns what sits on the other side: the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant. The DOE built the 1,200-acre facility, located just outside town of Piketon about an hour’s drive south of Columbus in southcentral Ohio, in 1954, as one of three plants it was using to enrich uranium and develop the country’s nuclear weapons arsenal. Now, the agency is trying to clean it up. The landfill—or “on-site waste disposal cell,” as the department calls it—would extend about 60-feet down and house 2 million tons of low-level radioactive waste comprised of soil, asbestos, concrete, and debris. It’ll be outfitted with a clay liner, a plastic cover layer, and a treatment system for any water that leaches through it. When finished, it will be one of the largest nuclear waste dumps east of the Mississippi.
Waste could begin entering it as soon as this fall.
The Mills have never taken issue with the DOE facility, but they don’t want this landfill. They’d rather see all this junk shipped off to disposal sites in the Southwest, where some low-level waste has already been sent. After all, what if the landfill leaks?
“It’s gonna contaminate everything,” David says, after he shows me how close the landfill sits to his property. “It’s just a matter of time.”
The couple is far from alone in their fears. The 2,000-strong Village of Piketon passed a resolution in August 2017 opposing the landfill. So did the local school district and the Pike County General Health District, where Piketon resides. The rural, low income, and largely white county is home to more than 28,000 people across a number of small towns and cities, some of which have passed their own resolutions against this project. Driving through neighborhoods behind Piketon’s main highway, lawn signs covered in red stating “NO RADIOACTIVE WASTE DUMP in Pike County” can be seen everywhere.“There were a lot of things they didn’t know and a lot of things they didn’t worry about that much, again, in the drive to develop nuclear weapons and to build up the nuclear arsenal. The legacy of that inattention is what we’re dealing with today.” – Edwin Lyman, senior scientist and acting director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Nuclear Safety Project
In January, the Village of Piketon approved the purchase of a $5,000 air quality monitor to track any potential contamination resulting from the landfill’s construction and the cleanup of the rest of the site. By March, Scioto Township, also in Pike County, purchased its own air quality monitor.
While Piketon’s air quality monitor should be set up within the next month, a separate analysis is already raising alarm bells. The Zahn’s Corner Middle School, which sits barely a 10-minute drive away from the plant, closed on May 13 after university researchers detected enriched uranium inside the building, and traces of neptunium appeared in readings from an air quality monitor right outside the school. While the DOE believes everything’s fine, the Pike County General Health District has been calling for the department to halt work while it investigates the matter. Townspeople worry this contamination is a direct result of recent activity at the plant.
All of this highlights deep public distrust over the nuclear facility’s cleanup plan. And after reviewing thousands of pages of documents—including independent studies, the project’s record of decision, and the remedial investigation and feasibility studies that went into writing it—to understand the risks, it’s clear the public isn’t worried for nothing.
Here’s the thing: Nothing is technically illegal about the landfill. The DOE, though the polluter, is taking the lead on cleaning up the facility, and the Ohio EPA supports its plan. Whether their decision is morally right given local opposition is another matter. But this is what often happens when a corporation or governmental entity needs to dispose of toxic waste: It gets left in an overlooked town no one’s heard of.
Piketon existed long before the Portsmouth facility did. The village was established in 1846 and has, largely, been a farming and logging community ever since, local county historian Jim Henry told Earther.
The Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant—locally known as the A-Plant (for Atomic Plant)—was the town’s first real industry. During the Cold War, the United States was in need of weapons of mass destruction, and these weapons required enriched uranium. Beginning in the early 1940s, the DOE started separating isotopes of uranium to isolate uranium-235, the one used to build nukes. Facilities like the A-Plant were tasked with doing the separation.
Before the A-Plant, residents had to leave the boundaries of Piketon if they wanted an industrial job, so they were glad to see it arrive. Those whom I spoke with made it sound like it gave the town a sense of patriotism.
What they, and everyone really, didn’t understand at the outset of the Cold War was the lasting impacts uranium enrichment could have. Sure, scientists understood radioactive material could cause cancer, but they thought that it’d take a lot of radiation, explained Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist and acting director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Nuclear Safety Project. Now, we know any exposure poses a risk.Continue reading